I have read and noted the contents of the press release issued by the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation on 30 December last.
Irish tourism has been faced with challenging conditions over the past few years but, with the combined efforts of the industry and the tourism agencies, it has weathered the storm better than many commentators had predicted.
I know that not all areas in Ireland, and not all sectors within the industry, have enjoyed the same rate of return from the growth in tourism generally. It is for this reason that achieving a better balance in terms of regional development remains one of the key objectives of Government macroeconomics policy one to which I am fully committed. One of the objectives of national tourism policy is to achieve as wide as possible a distribution of visitor numbers across the different regions. This is reflected in the programmes and initiatives operated by Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland and in the action plan set out in the recent report by the tourism policy review group.
Achieving this goal has long been a major challenge for the industry it requires co-operation from the public and private sectors alike and can only be delivered if the product offering concurs with the wishes, expectations and demands of holidaymakers.
Notwithstanding the fact that this remains a challenge, it is important to acknowledge the overall contribution of the tourism industry to national economic performance. The indications are that, last year, Ireland increased its share in many of its major tourism markets, despite intense international competition.
The CSO figures for the first nine months in 2003 showed a 5% increase in visitor numbers including increased numbers from Britain, where outbound tourism was very flat. Similarly, in mainland Europe, Ireland appears to have outperformed its main rivals in the German, French, Italian and Spanish markets, with mainland European visitor numbers up by over 8% on the same period last year. The North American market also appears to be turning the corner with strong growth achieved for the first time since 2000. If this level of growth is achieved for the full year, it would represent a good performance in a very difficult year and augurs well for 2004.
Government investment in support of tourism next year will be just under €115 million. Of this, almost €70 million will be spent in general support for the marketing and promotion activities of the tourism State agencies, including the largest ever provision for the tourism marketing fund of €31.5 million. This is both a reflection of the importance attached to marketing as a driver of growth and a strong endorsement of the performance of the two agencies in delivering value for this substantial Exchequer investment.
The two tourism State agencies, Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland, have set an ambitious target of 4% growth in overseas visitor numbers to Ireland for 2004. They are undertaking a comprehensive suite of marketing activities, across all markets and product niches. I am confident that, with the support of the tourism State agencies, the industry can deliver on these ambitious targets, and I hope that one of the related outcomes will be a better spread of the benefits of tourism throughout the country.